To Zoom or Not to Zoom?

Jul 08, 2021

Over the past fifteen months, SITI Company’s brilliant administrative leadership found the necessary funds to allow SITI Company actors and designers to engage in what we call Work/Space, which are rehearsals and workshops conducted on Zoom.  Together, the company put fresh strokes of proverbial paint upon the canvases of new projects that we will embody once we can all be together in a room again. These projects include Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol seen through the lens of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air, a new play by company member Chuck Mee, and the return to one of SITI’s inaugural pieces, The Medium, based upon the theories of Marshall McLuhan. Also, in April, company members, under the leadership of Darron West, managed to collaborate on a new production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters with Nine Years Theater in Singapore.  The SITI actors were prerecorded and performed on screens with the live actors in Singapore in front of both a live and a virtual audience. 

Last week we wrapped the SITI Company Skidmore three-week online intensive training program.  When the idea first arose to conduct our annual intensive training program online, on Zoom, I was skeptical and convinced that it would simply not happen. I was sure that no one would apply to our program, certain that theater people around the world would be so sick of Zoom that they would not want to spend three weeks staring into a computer screen and training on their living room floors.  And yet, 51 adventurous individuals from around the world did indeed embark upon this journey with us.  Rather than the customary four-week program with participants traveling from far and wide to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York and onto the campus of Skidmore College, we abbreviated the time to three weeks, and everyone would be connected via technology. In addition to participants “dialing in” from all over the US, we welcomed artists from India, Israel, Nepal, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, Colombia, Canada, and Australia. 

Many of the artists who joined us revealed that they had wanted to enroll in the program in previous years, but due to distance, childcare or work, they were unable to make the trip to Saratoga. The extra outreach that technology afforded us became a great bonus to this year’s program. For three weeks, the artists participated in daily classes in Suzuki, Viewpoints, Speaking, Movement, Composition and Process.  There were lectures, breakout sessions for affinity groups, and lunchtime conversations, all online. I remain deeply moved by the commitment, sweat, optimism, inventiveness, and generosity of the 51 participants.  And the SITI Company members who led the classes every day rose to the challenges of the technology and the high expectations put upon them. I believe that lasting relationships were generated over the course of this intensive, useful distance-training.

Since mid-March of 2020, I have spent enormous amounts of time and energy on Zoom, an average of seven hours a day. I taught classes for MFA directing students at Columbia University, engaged in the SITI Company Work/Space and strategy sessions, and participated in countless meetings with SDC (the union for Stage Directors and Choreographers) where I am on the Executive Board. Now that the Skidmore session is over, I am planning on taking the remainder of the summer months away from Zoom, as much as humanly possible.  

I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the fact that Zoom has been the baseline of almost every day during the past year and a half.  I imagine that I share with others who have been similarly engaged, the sensation of a wedge being driven through the brain at the end of each day.  Zoom is mentally exhausting. And the body, generally hunched over for long stretches of time, pays a severe toll.  I remain deeply ambivalent and weary of Zoom.  And yet the medium has allowed me to remain connected with the communities that I care about and to remain close to those who I am invested in. My need for connection with others has been greatly aided by platforms such as Zoom.

Annie Murphy Paul in her recently released book entitled The Extended Mind; The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, proposes that intelligence mostly exists beyond our brains – in our bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships:

Our brains evolved to think with people: to teach them, to argue with them, to exchange stories with them. Human thought is exquisitely sensitive to context, and one of the most powerful contexts of all is the presence of other people. As a consequence, when we think socially, we think differently – and often better – than we think non-socially.

The platform of Zoom has certainly created a context that allows me and countless others to connect with one another and to think together.  But I miss reading the entire body and experiencing the symphony of movement, shape, and tempo. I miss breathing with others and I miss how my breathing is changed by how others are breathing. I miss being present with other people, reading their body language, empathizing with the subtleties of their struggles, and moving with them through time and space.  I miss synchronizing my movements with others.

Some days I detest the very online medium that connects us.  Not only does spending time on Zoom send a wedge through my brain, but I am too easily distracted and fatigued by the consecutive hours of staring into the computer screen. And theater performances on Zoom generally depress me.  I find it difficult to concentrate and I hate how I find myself not caring as much as I do when I am present and in person. 

Nevertheless, Zoom does provide some valuable benefits. Even though I feel saddened by the isolation, I am also moved by the extraordinary efforts by others to connect across the airwaves. I do enjoy watching people in their living rooms and their bedrooms and I am fascinated by the details of their living spaces, how their rooms are decorated, what they choose to show or what they must visually reveal by circumstance.  Occasionally my efforts to be supportive pay off and now and again I even feel tangible enthusiasm.

Now, after these many months of online engagement, the benefits and deficits of Zoom are becoming apparent. How shall we move forwards into a future, making use of this technology and what we have learned on these platforms?

Here are some notes-to-myself regarding future uses of Zoom:

  • I would like to experiment with live streaming part of each in-person rehearsal process to interested parties around the world. 
  • Some dramaturgy sessions, and tablework seem to be quite effective on Zoom.
  • I wonder what part of design meetings can happen online, thereby eliminating the need for huge carbon footprints.
  • I hope that all future faculty meetings will be on Zoom unless there is a real reason to get together (usually the journey to the meeting takes twice as long as the meeting itself). 
  • I hope that we will carefully consider and consciously decide when it is important to be together, in the same room, breathing common air as opposed to staring into a screen. 

The deficits of being on Zoom are considerable. Face-to-face Zoom sessions light up the pre-frontal cortex of the brain but downplay the influence of the body, although it is through the whole body that we learn, engage and flourish.  Annie Murphy Paul, in The Extended Mind; The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, proposes that the brain is not the sole source of thought, rather we need to think outside the brain – specifically engaging the body itself (interoception and proprioception), the body in movement, the body while gesturing, the body while engaging in interactions with natural spaces and with architecture and the body during our interactions with others. It is the combination of these conditions that make us “smart.’  We learn and make progress through imitation, through coordinating our movements with others as well as by using what Annie Murphy Paul calls socially distributed cognition, in other words, it is while synchronizing with others that we begin to think collaboratively. 

The SITI Company actors, in teaching classes online, did indeed find ways for physical synchronicity to happen among the participants, even in the context of Zoom.  Toiling away in their living rooms or in found studio space, the participants found ways to support one another and kept training physically despite the isolating effects of this world-wide pandemic. 

Next summer, in June of 2022, SITI Company, in its current configuration, will offer one more in-person summer intensive training program. The session will take place once again in Saratoga Springs, New York, on the campus of Skidmore College. I look forward to being together again, in person, gathering with our friends from around the world to celebrate the culmination of SITI Company’s 30 years together. Saratoga Springs and Skidmore College have always been a home base for us. We welcome those who can manage four weeks away from their regular lives to join us in person, all at the same time, and in the same place.